Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Hunger Games, Kardashians and Jesus

One of my favorite criteria for judging a movie is how long I think and talk about it afterwards.

If I were judging by that standard alone, "The Hunger Games" would easily be on my top 10 list.

I think any time you tell a story like that you're tapping into baseline human fear and instinct. We all possess the secret knowledge that we may one day be asked, or forced, to shirk this thinly veiled charade we call "civilization" and take up arms so that we may enter into the fray to kill or be killed. So something like "The Hunger Games" is good because it lets us simulate our collective private nightmare.

And let's us take a few notes. Get to high ground. Get people to like you. DON'T go into the mouth of the cornucopia.

There are now simply too many books, movies and stories about civilization giving way to the stomping hoards or irrationality and the worst aspects of human nature taking the reins of the world to keep quiet about the following--we don't trust ourselves. Each of us know that civilization, to a large extent, is just play acting. We've smeared respectability and laws over the surface of the human animal--and we're all paranoid that it will be wiped away sooner rather than later.

"The Hunger Games" joins a long tradition of stories manifesting scripted and regimented barbarity to hold society together. A few examples would be "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" (Ursula Leguin), "The Lottery" (Shirley Jackson), and in the same vein but less violent, "The Giver" (Lois Lowry). I'm not sure why it's a recurrent story--maybe it's God's fault. Whether you believe any or all of what supposedely happened to Jesus, his story is forever entwined with the Western World (maybe the Eastern too, I don't know, never lived in the Eastern World). The One Who Suffered For the Many. That's what you have in all these stories above.

But "The Hunger Games" offers an interesting twist on this genre. I haven't made up my mind yet, and I'm very eager to hear how the story will continue, but one of the things that occurred to me was that in our main character, Katniss Everdeen, we have a Reverse Jesus. Jesus suffered and died so that we might all live; Katniss warred, maimed and murdered . . . so that we might all live. Though, of course, she was properly reluctant and sufficiently honorable in her participation in the horror show. This is not an insult, nor is it a final conclusion, just something that occurred to me.

One other thing I'm left wondering about "The Hunger Games": To what extent, if at all, is it an allegory for television? "What if no one watched?" "you have to get sponsors, you have to get people to like you." I also believe it is impossible to watch this movie and NOT think of "Survivor." The reality television show that is The Hunger Games keeps the masses happy. It's horrific and heart breaking and barbaric . . . and we can't stop watching it. Sound familiar?

Well, I guess it's a fair question: What would happen if we woke up and found ourselves stripped of our Kardashians, our Super Bowl, The Real World, Pawn Stars, In Treatment, Hoarders, Real Housewives et al?

The blood would run red in the streets.

(I found myself exhausted by typing out all of those reality shows, so please behold the extent of the ruination of the human soul that Wikipedia has documented for us: List of Reality Television Shows.)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Regret

"You regret what you want."

I'm going through drafts of potential blogs that never quite made it. This is one of them.

You've been lied to about regret. We think there's something wrong with it. We think it's a sign of a life misspent. Every living soul knows regret of one kind or another. But we've gotten the feeling that it isn't good, so we lie and say proudly, "I have no regrets."

That is nothing but stuffing reality in a sock. Not that that is strange. It isn't. It is normal to stuff reality in a sock.

I know deep and abiding regret. The big defense is always that, "Well I wouldn't be where I am today if I hadn't of done what I've done." It's really no argument at all. The calculus and sum total of our decisions are a whirlwind. The only reason we don't say "My life would have been so much better if I would have--" is because we can't actually see it. Please rest assured that your life would have been better if you had made some better decisions in the past. Out of sight, out of mind, I guess.

There are two great monuments to regret that I am aware of. The first is the Kenny Chesney song, "Done a Lot of Things Different."

"People say they wouldn't change a thing, even if they could/oh but I would."

The other one is a quote from the movie "Magnolia." It is haunting and beautiful. It is sometimes crass and uses four letter words--but so does life. But some people prefer to shield themselves from life, so I gave you fair warning.

The following quote is an old man on his deathbed:

"Earl Partridge: Oh, yeah, yeah. Yeah. So I went to her school for that grade. Grade - that's grade twelve. And we meet. She was... fucking like a doll. A beautiful porcelain doll. And the hips, child-bearing hips, you know that? So, so beautiful. And I cheated on her... over and over and over again. Because I wanted to be a man. And I didn't want her to be a woman, you know? A smart, free person who was something! My fucking mind then. So stupid, that fucking mind! Stupid! Jesus Christ! What would I think, did I think for what I'd done? She was my wife for twenty-three years... and I went behind her over and over. Fucking asshole that I am. I'd go out and I'd fuck and I'd come home and get in her bed... and say... "I love you." This is Jack's mother. His mother, Lily. These two... that I had... and I lost. This is the regret that you make. This is the... regret that you make and the something you take and the blah, blah, blah, something, something. Gimme a cigarette. Mistakes like this... you don't make. Sometimes... you make some and OK. Not OK, sometimes, you make other ones. Know that you should do better. I loved Lily. I cheated on her. She was my wife for twenty-three years. And I have a son. And she has cancer. And I'm not there, and he's forced to take care of her. He's fourteen years old. To... to take care of his mother... and watch her die on him. A little kid, and I'm not there. And she does die.

Earl Partridge: I loved her so. And she knew what I did. She knew all the fucking stupid things I'd done. But the love... was stronger than anything you can think of. The goddamn regret. The goddamn regret! Oh, and I'll die. Now I'll die, and I'll tell you what... the biggest regret of my life... I let my love go. What did I do? I'm sixty-five years old. And I'm ashamed. A million years ago... the fucking regret and guilt, these things, don't ever let anyone ever say to you you shouldn't regret anything. Don't do that. Don't! You regret what you fucking want! Use that. Use that. Use that regret for anything, any way you want. You can use it, OK? Oh, God. This is a long way to go with no punch. A little moral story, I say... Love. Love. Love. This fucking life... oh, it's so fucking hard. So long. Life ain't short, it's long. It's long, goddamn it. Goddamn. What did I do? What did I do? What did I do? What did I do? Phil. Phil, help me. What did I do?"


Sunday, March 25, 2012

Dear God, am I a Liberal?


About three months ago I managed to confuse everyone I know by posting an outline of the blog that I am now posting today. What happened is that three months ago I got excited about writing this blog, but I didn't have the time to actually sit down and think/write it all out. So I posted a teaser. But I wasn't very clear about it being a teaser.

"Dear God, am I a liberal?--An Outline" was a teaser to this blog.

About a year ago I started consuming the books of former Episcopal Minister, Robert Farrar Capon. The effect has been nothing short of a complete shift on my view of God, theology and Scripture. I've been getting shaped by books for a decade, but I would say this is the first time that I've had my worldview "shifted." I'll get into the details of what I'm talking about presently, but for a moment take time to consider the mechanics of what is going on.

We are so easily influenced. Peer pressure is not an occasional phenomena but is more akin to the air we breathe and the water we swim in. Your thoughts, choices, opinions and ideas are not your own. I do not know to what extent I am reinventing the wheel for you by telling you this, but I find it's good every so often to be reminded of these facts. No, I'm not saying you've never conceived of something original; I am only saying it is difficult to understate the extent to which you are a product of external forces.

And so it is with Robert and I. For better or worse I have let Capon shift the way I view the things of God. I keep using the word "shift", let me explain. It is not as if he has caused me to think different things about God (i.e. now I'm not sure if Jesus is God, sin isn't so bad, the Muslims are right), but it's more like he said, "You've been looking at God through that window in front of you, but you can actually get a better view if you look at Him through this one over here."

So what is the result of my understanding of Capon's teachings? To relax, to lighten up, to let a little more go. It turns out God is much more powerful and sovereign than I thought. How best to explain? How about this:

The other day I was speaking to a Medical Assistant at work about what she was going to do for the holidays. She's Catholic, and she told me that one of the things her family does around Christmas is go out to this farm in Enumclaw where the Virgin Mary once appeared. She appeared there a few decades back, and now the farm is considered Holy Ground. The guy who owns the farm talks to Mary frequently, and she to him, and the MA rattled off to me several things that she's either seen or heard of happening that could only be classified as bonified miracles.

When she first started telling me about Mary and everything she was doing I had to suppress the condescending, knowing smile that tried so hard to leap to my face. My lifelong training has well informed me that the Catholics are dead wrong on a great many things--the god-like status of Mary being one of the major ones. I myself, unlike too many other Protestants I fear to guess at, think that most of the Catholics, like most of the Protestants, will still be "saved," it's just that the Catholics will have to be saved in spite of their many wrongs.

But then a funny thing happened. I started thinking different thoughts about the Catholics as she and I continued the conversation. I thought, "Who the hell am I to deny the reality of these things she's saying?" Because I'm a Protestant, I "know" that the Catholics are wrong and God is not happy with those things they are wrong about. I'm not so arrogant as to think I don't have anything "wrong" in my theology, just that I'm not As Wrong as the Catholics. But I had to be honest with myself--if any fellow Protestant was telling me about the exact same miracles I wouldn't have been nearly as skeptical or dismissive (I'm always at least a little skeptical). What basis did I have to discount these Catholic miracles/blessings from Mary?

After reading Capon I now know that it is entirely possible, if not incredibly likely, that God's relationship to the Catholics goes something like this: "Well Mary, they've decided you are something of the divine. It's not how I designed you, wasn't the plan I had, but it means something to them, so I'm going to send you down to Enumclaw to give them a thrill." I know how offensive my words must be for the Catholics, so let me show you just how easy it can be for the Protestants as well: God beholds Luther and Calvin, whimpers, and puts his head in his hands. "Sure, my Church gets a little out of hand and I get an anti-semite and a murderer to come running to my rescue. Great. And Calvin goes and tells the world that I, who am Love itself, creates most of the human souls in this world only to be fuel for the fire, grist for the mill." He claps his hand to his forehead and pours himself a Johnny Walker Blue, neat.

We are so incredibly concerned with getting it right--but we are not remotely capable of "getting it all right." How can God be chagrined by theological error when a) everyone will have it to a greater and lesser extent, and b) he DESIGNED us this way? We do not possess the capacity to comprehend the mind of God. So we, by design, will fall short. But, as usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle. God IS concerned with us believing the right things. We wouldn't have the Bible if he wasn't. So you have to hold both of the truths in an open hand: You won't get it right; it's important to God to get it right. But we can't. I know. Look, I didn't make it up, I'm just telling you what I'm seeing.

Am I right about all of this? Do you need to now bow down before the truths I've presented? Well, as Steve Brown is fond of saying, 50 percent of what I've just told you is wrong--I just don't know which 50 percent.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Cure is the Pain

Will you allow yourself to be challenged? I think that's the question.

Anybody, fool and genius alike, can defend themselves. Justify themselves. Can effortlessly manipulate logic and reason to see themselves as right in their own minds. Not only is this common and easy, but it is one of the rules of human nature.

All things being equal, you will follow the path of least resistance. Your human nature never wants to take the blame--if you don't conciously militate against it you'll stack the deck in your favor every time.

I was thinking about someone I know, and thinking about how for them their extent of life beyond work is to get home and turn the TV on. For them that is the path of least resistance. And to deviate from that path would be to pick up a book or have a conversation with someone in their family.

I don't have a problem with watching too much TV, but my path of least resistance is to stick my nose in a book when I should be doing more productive things. Reading is my comfort zone, stepping out and doing something is a challenge.

One that I don't really enjoy.

In C.S. Lewis' "Great Divorce" the characters think their feet are being hurt when they step on the grass. The problem was that the grass was real; they had never experienced a reality as real as that grass. It seemed painful to them.

Real power showed up looking like abject weakness. The world was won by losing. Gain will always be disguised in pain.

This knowledge alone doesn't really do anything--I'm still reading too many books.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Cuffs & Cameras

What do I think of George Clooney getting himself arrested?


I don't know. I'm really torn up about it. Do I think that it is to be admired, that someone of his fame, wealth, status and privilege would stand on his principles and do such a thing, or do I think that he has an ego the size of a lower back tattoo convention (that is to say the size of Tennessee) to think that people should care, that people should take time from their mortgages & children & stress & food to say, "My God, Clooney is doing something about this Sudan situation, how can I help?"

I'll just leave myself at torn. From what I know of Clooney I really like him (though my wife likes him more. I know for a certainty that if he ever darkened our doorway it would be curtains for our marriage). It's tough to blame him for wanting to make a difference in the face of evil. It's evil that you and I couldn't give a flying F about what is going on in Sudan, so I shall not take a double helping of it and crap on someone who is taking the time to do whatever they feel is in their power to do something about a problem.

Even if they are one of those much maligned and worshiped and uniquely American creations: a Celebrity.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Shut Up About Your Faith

"The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God." The Apostle Paul in the fourteenth chapter of Romans.

Do I really mean the title of this post? Of course I don't. But the above quote is a little mental exercise for us all. The Bible is too often used as a cut and dried, black and white rule book. Certainly there are guidelines, but life is much too complicated for an intractable list of rules as your only guide.

So for all of the justification the obnoxious Christian can find in the Bible for their obnoxiousness--you also have wonderful verses like this one. Does the verse mean you should ALWAYS and ONLY keep your faith to yourself? It couldn't possibly mean that, not with everything else that Paul said. 

But neither should other verses that leaders like to use as tools and goads be used as a blanket operating expectation:

"Jesus said to him, 'No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.'” Luke 9:62. The problem with this verse is that it applies to everyone. Did you hear me, I said EVERYONE. You said to Jesus today, "I'm on my way, but just give me a moment to take care of some of my stuff." No one lives up to their own standard of righteousness. So if it doesn't mean that if you half-ass it with Jesus then you're not going to make it to heaven, then what does it mean? I don't know. You might think that's a cop out, and maybe it is, but I'm just not sure. I could listen to a gifted theologian explain it, and I would probably agree, but all of those explanations have not stuck with me. My best is that I would say it is there for people who need to hear it, when they need to hear it. All the time you half-ass it. Sometimes you half-ass it when you know you could do better. That's why this verse is there. But it is certainly not there to confirm that unless you're giving it your all you probably won't make it to heaven.

"Always be ready to give a reason for the hope that you have." 1 Peter 3:15. Always as in always ALWAYS? Surely there are some times when silence or conciliatory chatter may be a better option? (Edit: This is actually disingenuous of me. Inherent in the verse is the unspoken assumption that not every situation will call for you to speak. Otherwise it would drop the "be ready to." So I must withdraw this paragraph from my overall argument. But for some reason it gets left in the text of the blog; I have no immediate explanation for this.)

"But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one." 1 Corr. 5:11. Oh my God be careful with this. I'm not really sure what it means (because if we were to take it at face value then no one should be eating with me, nor I with most Christian's that I know). Surely there must be a place for the application of this verse--but it's really not too often. Be Careful. It sounds big and weighty and scary, but if you start seeing this practiced on even a semi-regular basis then run. They're coming after you next.

If it's God's Word then you will simply have to wrestle with it more than you're even happy with. It's deceiving, enigmatic, frustrating--you should expect nothing less if the God of the Universe is trying to talk to you. If you could understand it--now that would be the real problem. In that case you've either got a fraud on your hands, or a God that's about as smart as you. Perish the thought.

Addendum: I'm sure that I frustrate some, if not all. With the way that I talk I make it sound like we can't know anything, and that God, to quote the Brothers Karamazov, "only sends us riddles." I paint the picture of a confounding God who hasn't given us much to go on. This isn't my true perspective. I described the Bible as "deceiving, enigmatic, frustrating." But I would also describe it as clear, beautiful, rewarding and True. My problem is that the side of the street that the happy Christian who doesn't struggle with sin and confusion and frustration with God has been worked up and down, over and over, quite well, thank you very much. A rut has been dug in the sidewalk for all the traffic it has gotten. 

That side of the street is not an accurate reflection of my reality as I experience it.  

There is something broken in the modern Christian mind that makes us think we are supposed to be a shining example of strength, faith and morality. Paul lays waste to this idea: "But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God." God gives us a real world example of Orwellian logic: Strength through weakness, wisdom through foolishness. 

So I don't mind working the other side of the street for awhile. The side of weakness, doubt, lastness and leastness and lostness. It's mysterious, and I don't think I'll always get it right. But I'll keep striking forth, sometimes in error, sometimes in truth, if it means the scales are on their way to being balanced. Even if it takes awhile.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Damnit

Sometimes things are just too beautiful and I get this feeling like I can't take it. I think this idea was briefly touched upon in the film "American Beauty," but I will not allow myself to feel trite--this feeling is earned, and it is my own.

This time around the trigger for the feeling is the following lyrics. But you won't be doing justice to them unless you first hear the song. I've heard it a handful of times, and I finally decided to Google and find out what was actually being said. Beauty on top of beauty.

So, this first: The song is called "Blood" by The Middle East, and you can hear it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EjB2hbMYIXo

Then you can read the following. Or, if you're in a rush, play the above and read along below:


Older brother, restless soul, lie down
Lie for a while with your ear against the earth
And you’ll hear your sister sleep talking
Say, “Your hair is long but not long enough to reach
Home to me
But your beard
Someday might be”

And she woke up in a cold sweat on the floor
Next to a family portrait drawn when you were four
And beside a jar of two cent coins that are no good no more
She’ll lay it aside

Older father, weary soul, you’ll drive
Back to the home you made on the mountainside
With that ugly, terrible thing
Those papers for divorce
And a lonely ring
A lonely ring
Sit on your porch
And pluck your strings

Oh, and you’ll find somebody you can blame
And you’ll follow the creek that runs out into the sea
And you’ll find the peace of the Lord.

Grandfather, weary soul, you’ll fly
Over your life once more before you die
Since our grandma passed away
You’ve waited for forever and a day
Just to die
And someday soon
You will die

It was the only woman you ever loved
That got burnt by the sun too often when she was young
And the cancer spread and it ran into her body and her blood
And there’s nothing you can do about it now

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Permission To Be


It’s the advice I’ve been receiving as of late (“don’t say ‘as of late’—it’s pretentious.”).

Reset.

I suggest that whenever you hear the same message from sources independent of each other you should pay more than the usual amount of attention.

This week I’ve had Charlie Kaufman and John Updike, and him from the grave no less, tell me that I’m going to have to let me be myself if I want to get anywhere. The thing is, I’m still stuck on this. I never got past self-loathing. Maybe I’m normal, I have no idea. But I don’t hear a lot of other people talking about this, so I conclude that I am not normal.

The thing that stops me is that no one wants to hear it. What does that mean? I’ll tell you: No one wants my typical white middle-class take on anything that I have to say. My insights are second rate. All I do is read other people’s art and get excited about it. I’m not a self-generating font of original insight. And anything that I do have to say has been said better by masters and genius’ (geniusai?) obscene amounts of times before myself. I’m not a spy (though you can never trust ANYONE who says that because it’s exactly what a spy would say), I’m not a savant, I’m not an expert on anything. I’m bringing nothing to the table to distinguish myself.

Furthermore, let’s say I had something to say. Well I wouldn’t say it smart enough. Eyes would be rolling, people, grandmothers from their couches, would cry “maudlin!” “trite!” “ill-conceived!”

And that is the logic that has gotten me to here, three months before I arrive at my third decade.

Now Charlie and John sit beside me on the side of the bed, gently pat my leg, and calmly say, “Even though there is truth to what you’re saying, it’s ultimately bullshit.”

“I know.”

“But you’re still doing it. Why?”

“Because I’m scared.”

CharlieJohn sighs. “Of course you are. Anything worth anything will be difficult to acquire. You have to walk through the pain.”

“Ok.”

Unfortunately I don’t come out from that experience looking particularly erudite. “I know. I’m scared. Ok.” But two literary giants were sitting on my bed with me. I get nervous when I speak to my own friends, so you’ll have to pardon me.

Of course they’re right. And because everything is everything, their words are Red’s words—“Get busy living, or get busy dying.”

When I want to piss myself off I remember that self-loathing is a form of self-worship. Somewhere in all the posturing about how lame I am there is a pride—there is a benefit I’m reaping from the whining and fear that I don’t want to discontinue collecting.

But. Forcing myself, now. I stand at the door. I don’t want to walk through it. On the other side is unknown. I have trained myself to look before I leap, to know what the shot is. I stand at the door. Knowledge, logic and experience tell me not to go through. Walking through the door can only be a step of faith—all of my evidence leads me calmly away from the door. I stand at the door.

All I have, is all I have. There is nothing else to say. If I’m supposed to speak, then it will have to be with this second class education, this non-genius brain, and only the tools that are currently in the box.

I can’t say if I walked through the door. That answer can only come later, just as wisdom is proved right by her children.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Cost of Being Social

Lately I've been thinking about social interaction in purely economical terms. Why have I been doing this? You're telling me you've been doing better things with your time?

So if someone is being difficult, not corresponding to the rules of social fair play as I understand them, then they are asking me to pay their rent. Now I have to put more money on the table because they don't have enough bread in their account to afford being an adult about this thing and taking the proper amount of responsibility. They don't care that it's costing me money to store their trash-heap of a car, as it were.

Now I'm sitting here racking my brain to stretch out another economic metaphor. I guess the whole rent thing is really as far as I got with this thought experiment. Let's see, trying to understand someone's broken English could be buying foreign currency--but that would always have to be a losing proposition (because trying to understand ESL people is always difficult), and as I understand it, it isn't. Thinking about the trade deficit and its relation to GDP as a gross aggregate of cost per person in the lower 48 is talking to lawyers.

Balancing the budget is trying to make a room full of whores all happy and not mad at each other--and honestly I don't have to do that too often, so I don't even know why I'm going there.

Lying is price gouging. And tax. Tax is also when someone is being intentionally difficult in order to sluff their work off on you. Charitable giving is when attractive women pretend to enjoy speaking with you. Attractive women will enjoy you more if you slip a few bills in their purse (hopefully you're able to follow me at this point). Having someone unload on you because they just stubbed their toe is being robbed at knife-point. If they just blew their life savings at the craps table, it's gun-point.

I've gotta go, some guy is trying to get me to buy his car at fair market value with foreign currency as he screams in my ear about socialism.